Sunday, July 10, 2016

My four months of getting hassled by cops

Photo taken in Port Arthur, Texas, on the final hour of my journey.
On my walk across the Great Plains, I had countless encounters with law enforcement. At one point in Montana, I was awoken by an armed posse led by the local sheriff. In Petersburg, Nebraska, I was detained and driven out of the county on false charges of breaking into local homes. In Kansas, I was approached by cops every day — sometimes several times a day — so that they could check my ID and see what I was up to. In Texas, a cop pulled over and interviewed me to determine whether I was an environmental terrorist. In my normal life, I’m never approached by cops. But on this 146-day trip, I must have been targeted by cops several times a week.

On the one hand, I can identity with people of color who are routinely suspected of wrongdoing just because of how they look. (In their case, they’re black, and in my case, I was a bearded and bedraggled stranger.) But, on the other hand, I’ll never really understand what they have to go through. I never felt fear in any of these encounters. I never worried about getting manhandled, beaten, or shot. I never felt my dignity was being assaulted because I knew that this targeting would end the minute my hike did, and I'd go back to my old life in which my whiteness makes me invisible to cops. Honestly, being detained or cornered by cops was a source of amusement to me more than anything else.

I was treated with respect in all of these interactions. I’d call them “warm,” even. They usually ended with the officer wishing me good luck. One time, when things got scary in Atoka, Oklahoma — when a stranger approached my tent in the middle of the night — I called the cops, who came out to make sure I was okay. Another time, in Augusta, Kansas, the police department offered to let me sleep in their offices on a particularly cold December night. Despite being suspected of wrongdoing all the time, I ended my journey with great respect for cops and what they do.

But this is not a “all cops are wonderful” post. There is no question in my mind that African Americans are disproportionately targeted, mistreated, and killed. (Make sure you read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” before you disagree with that comment.) There’s no question that doing what I did — trespassing across the whitest part of America — would be one hundred times harder, and deadlier, for a person of color.

I’m not sure what this post is other than a double dose of sympathy from someone who’s neither black nor a cop: I sympathize with folks who are racially targeted and I sympathize with the men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day. This post is an acknowledgement of the good work our cops do and an acknowledgment that things must also change.

Detained in Petersburg, Nebraska on false charges of breaking and entering.


Ken said...

I first posted this entry on Facebook and unsurprisingly I got a few comments that claimed that African Americans are NOT targeted more than whites, which is to say that African Americans' gripes with law enforcement are completely unreasonable because whites, Hispanics, etc, are just as often frisked, pulled over, and arrested. This is not true at all. Some statistics:

Here are some very clear statistics that show that blacks are in fact targeted more.

From The Guardian:

“Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015, according to the findings of a Guardian study that recorded a final tally of 1,134 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers this year.

“Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.

“Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.”

From NYT on NYC’s “stop and frisk” policies:

“At the heart of the Floyd case are statistics showing that the city conducted an astounding 4.4 million stops between January 2004 and June 2012. Of these, only 6 percent resulted in arrests and 6 percent resulted in summonses. In other words, 88 percent of the 4.4 million stops resulted in no further action — meaning a vast majority of those stopped were doing nothing wrong. More than half of all people stopped were frisked, yet only 1.5 percent of frisks found weapons. In about 83 percent of cases, the person stopped was black or Hispanic, even though the two groups accounted for just over half the population.”

From Washington Post:

“The Justice Department statistics, based on the Police-Public Contact Survey, show that "relatively more black drivers (12.8%) than white (9.8%) and Hispanic (10.4%) drivers were pulled over in a traffic stop during their most recent contact with police." Or, to frame it another way: A black driver is about 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than a white driver, or about 23 percent more likely than a Hispanic driver. "Driving while black" is, indeed, a measurable phenomenon.”

Dean Durant said...

was it as bad in Canada as it was in the states? reading your book it didn't seem like it.

Unknown said...

even as a white person I'm nervous about getting stopped by the cops especially in rural areas. I was backpacking in my own neighborhood and i still got stopped because the cops got reports of a suspicious bearded "homeless" person... i think its more paranoid old people with nothing better to do.. oh well, i love your stuff ken, i read walden on wheels and it changed my life!

Rachel said...

Hi Ken - I just finished Walden on Wheels and wanted to share that I really enjoyed it. I've been recommending it to some friends too.